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Regenerative agriculture isn’t just about raising and farming crops in a way that’s better for the environment. It actually extends to another key food source: meat. Yep, you read that right. Regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach to farming, can also be applied to raising animals – and regeneratively farmed meats are healthier for people and the planet.
And thanks to the research and work around regenerative ag that’s being done at Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County, California in partnership with The Marin Carbon Project, we’re seeing the impact of regenerative agriculture really pay off for the environment and for the animals on the ranch.
Founded by fourth-generation farmer Loren Ponica, who runs the farm with his wife, Lisa, Stemple Creek Ranch is changing agriculture and the way animals are raised. Here, beef, pork and lamb are raised on organic pastures and treated with care and respect. I spoke with Lisa to learn more about Stemple Creek Ranch, its regenerative agriculture practices and how work like the Poncia family’s sustainability efforts can make a difference on a larger scale.
It all started with a new approach to agriculture
When Loren and Lisa Poncia first got married, they didn’t exactly plan to become ranchers. Although Loren’s parents had a home ranch that’d been in the Poncia family for about 125 years, the couple didn’t initially believe there was much opportunity present there.
But, as Lisa told me, her husband came to her one day with an idea – and a renewed passion – for the ranch. The idea? To take over the ranch from Loren’s parents as they started their own business and adopted a new approach to farming.
“We scraped our dollars together and started buying cattle, started managing the land differently,” says Lisa. “We started selling directly to consumers, slowly transitioned to a grass-fed, grass-finished model and got organic certified. But we realized, if we’re going to do this for our life’s work, we have to have a niche product. We’re not just raising a commodity product. From there, it just grew.”
And it all came back to the land across the ranch. “We started really working on the land itself, improving the land and how it was maintained to make a really good pasture for our animals… the ranch itself was in real disrepair,” Lisa says.
As the younger Poncia family began to make improvements across their land that would not only lead to a better product but also better business practices, the couple discovered regenerative agriculture.
“As we were on our journey of learning how we could connect with consumers, we got into regenerative agriculture and focusing on the soil,” she explains. “If we could create better soil, pull more carbon into the soil for more water, it might help.”
Stemple Creek Ranch is a study in the benefits of regenerative agriculture
The Poncia’s discovery of regenerative agriculture was a game changer, not just for their business plans but also for their land and animals.
With a California-based ranch, they were subject to the state’s notorious and ever-more-frequent droughts, which required careful water conservation. A bad drought could spell trouble for the survival of Stemple Creek Ranch’s animals and land. And those droughts were part of the reason regenerative agriculture seemed like a smart bet to make.
“Every year in northern California, we have a seasonal drought where we don’t get rain for 6 months,” Lisa explains. “All of our pastures are non-irrigated. Grass only grows with rain from the sky.”
But how, exactly, would the Poncias master regenerative agriculture practices? A unique opportunity called The Marin Carbon Project came around, and the couple jumped at the opportunity.
The ranch partnered with scientists and other experts to put regenerative agriculture into action
The Marin Carbon Project was developed in response to the increasing pace of climate change. This consortium of independent agricultural institutions in Marin County, California includes researchers, local and federal agencies, nonprofits and farms and ranches that are working to enhance carbon sequestration in different kinds of soil.
“When The Marin Carbon Project started, it was originally a 10-year study where all of these brilliant minds and scientists came together from around the world to study how certain agricultural practices [impacted] your land, your pasture and [if] you can actually build carbon in the soil that’ll sequester it from the weather,” Lisa explains.
When the project first began back in 2013, Lisa tells me that the leadership team was looking for three demo farms to start with: one cattle farm, one dairy farm and one vegetable farm. Stemple Creek Ranch was chosen as the cattle ranch. “We knew it was going to open up this whole new arena of access to experts and information,” she says.
Over the course of two years, the Poncias worked with The Marin County Project to implement new regenerative agriculture practices like applying compost to their rangelands and identifying carbon-beneficial actions they could take. And as the project continued, the Stemple Creek Ranch team paid close attention to the land and its soil – plus the impact the addition of carbon had on the grass and the animals raised there.
Which aspects of regenerative ag are most critical for Stemple Creek Ranch? “Making compost and applying to the pastures is one of the key things we’re doing,” Lisa says. “We make compost on a very large scale and apply it… You get residual benefits, not just from the first year but the years after. It absolutely makes a large-scale difference.”
Plus, the ranch’s work has shown the Poncias just what their land needs – a detail that’s helped guide how they handle their soil, treat it and even plant crops.
“There are certain things our soil is lacking. There’s a lot of compaction in the soil, so we do things like apply different organic matters to help with whatever it’s needing,” Lisa explains. “We apply sea water that has bacteria and minerals that are rich in calcium and other things. [We plant] certain types of perennials that specifically have longer, deeper tap roots, [which] helps break up the soil and create air, alleviating compaction. After years of doing that, we’ll get little tufts of green in fields of gold because they live year-round.”
Overall, it’s been quite a big success for Stemple Creek Ranch. “Now, years later, the data is showing that it’s working,” Lisa says. “We really are building carbon in our soil. The most amazing part is that it’s win-win. [As] we build organic matter in our soil, it helps the environment in general. But it also helps our business by growing more grass.”
Stemple Creek Ranch is already reaping the big environmental benefits of its carbon-driven efforts
In the years since first beginning the regenerative ag approaches of The Marin Carbon Project, Stemple Creek Ranch has already seen the benefits of added carbon in soil. And the work the Poncia family and the ranch team have been doing is paying off, especially when it comes to surviving in an unpredictable climate.
As a Los Angeles native, I’m no stranger to our droughts. And up until December 2021, the entire state was in “extreme drought” conditions, with much of the Central Valley in “exceptional drought” conditions due to the lack of snow and rain. I asked Lisa what it’s been like for Stemple Creek Ranch in the face of years of these drought conditions – and it turns out The Marin Carbon Project has had a significant positive impact.
“We absolutely have been impacted by last year’s drought,” Lisa says. “It economically impacted us; we had to make decisions because there was very limited feed. When there’s such a widespread drought, we can’t go out and just buy organic alfalfa because every other rancher is in the same position. There just isn’t organic feed to buy.”
Despite these difficulties, though, Stemple Creek Ranch was actually in a pretty good place throughout this most recent drought. “We were positioned as good as we absolutely could’ve been. We had more grass than we would’ve had otherwise, we had as much residual feed as we could,” Lisa says.
And she credits the ranch’s regenerative ag practices for keeping them in a good position. “It was a moment to be thankful for all of this [regenerative agriculture] work we’ve done. The carbon in the soil and regenerative agriculture plays such a big piece in our yearly cycle. Drought is a way of life, unfortunately. But we can continue to use tools that can help.”
In fact, regenerative agriculture practices are making such a difference at Stemple Creek that Lisa notes, “If agriculture can do this around the world, it can change the world.”
Practices that are as good for the environment as the animals
While regenerative agriculture is often thought of in terms of land usage and soil, it’s equally important for the animals raised at Stemple Creek Ranch. The grass-fed, grass-finished aspect of the ranch’s efforts is just one aspect of how the Poncias raise and care for them.
“We follow our values: honesty, transparency and quality. We try to have everything come back to that. It’s truly win-win: It’s better for us and the animal,” Lisa explains.
And the ranch is part of the Global Animal Partnership, one of the largest animal welfare food labeling programs in North America. Stemple Creek Ranch produces meat that’s also organic certified.
But most importantly, the Poncias hope that they can teach more people about their work and how their meat is raised.
“We’re 55 miles from the Golden Gate bridge in the backyard of this major metropolitan area. If we can bring people here and they can see what we’re doing, see the work that we’re doing, that’s the best certification you can get,” Lisa says. “That’s the best way for [people] to learn about local agriculture, who’s raising their food, why they should care and where their food is coming from.”
If you’re not able to visit Stemple Creek Ranch to see their work firsthand, you can connect with the ranch online. In addition to learning about the ranch’s work and practices, you can shop the selection of 100 percent grass-fed beef, lamb and pork – and have it delivered right to your door for quality meat that comes from a source that’s transparent, kind to the environment and respectful.